Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3 review

I often use a phrase borrowed from Game of Thrones to describe the ephemeral nature of technology trends: “It is known.”

See, our unreliable memories have, over time, created false narratives of absolutes, ones that seem embedded and certain, but are clearly borne from the comfortable perch of hindsight.

Apple and Samsung rule the smartphone market, and are the only two companies making any money. It is known.

There are always innumerable compromises associated with releasing a low-cost smartphone. It is known.

And no one knows who the hell Alcatel OneTouch is. It is definitely known.

And yet, the company is the sixth-largest smartphone manufacturer in the world by units sold, behind only Apple, Samsung, Huawei, ZTE and Lenovo. It is also not, as is widely believed, a European company; Chinese manufacturing giant, TCL Corporation, purchased Alcatel’s mobile offerings in 2007.

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Specs

  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 615 processor (4 cores @ 1.5Ghz / 4 cores @ 1Ghz)
  • 5.5-inch 1920×1080 pixel laminated IPS LCD display
  • 2GB LPDDR3 RAM
  • 16GB internal storage / microSD slot up to 128GB
  • 13MP Sony IMX214 rear camera w/ F2.0 lens
  • 1080p video capture at 30fps
  • 8MP front-facing camera
  • 2,910mAh non-removable battery
  • 152.7mm x 75.1mm x 7.4mm
  • LTE Band 2/4/5/7/12/17 up to 150MBps, HSPA+ 850/AWS/1900
  • $250 USD unlocked (Canadian pricing not yet available)

Now, the company is releasing its best phone yet. With the Idol 3, Alcatel OneTouch accomplishes two things: it vastly improves its value proposition in the $250 USD range; and it earns some recognition beyond being an also-ran among the major Chinese manufacturers.

The Idol 3, which debuts this week for $250 USD, is not a great smartphone, but it’s a good one – good enough for what you get, and certainly better than many of the equivalents in its price range.

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What Works

Let’s start with what makes the phone good. I am reviewing the 5.5-inch version, but there is also a 4.7-inch model that won’t be coming to Canada, at least at first.

On paper, AOT manages to hit all the right marks for a $250 phone: its 5.5-inch 1080p LCD panel is IPS, and has good colour reproduction, excellent viewing angles, and a nice Dragontrail glass coating. Touch response is also impressive.

The body looks like a Nexus 4, and that’s no accident: AOT seems to have taken what made the last couple of Nexus phones impressive and distilled them to a fine point. The back, however, is not made of glass, but a tasteful matte plastic that has a similar fake metal grain to the LG G3, just slightly less interesting.

Running a 64-bit quad-core Snapdragon 615 processor paired with 2GB of RAM and 16GB of storage, the Idol 3 has plenty of power – the S615 is an eight-core SoC, made up entirely of lower-power Cortex-A53s, as opposed to the half-A53, half-A57 composition of the Snapdragon 810. We haven’t seen a 600-series chip from Qualcomm in some time, but a couple of years after the Snapdragon 600 graced high-end devices like the Samsung Galaxy S4 and HTC One M7 the name scheme represents the market’s bulging middle, a place that previous represented suspect quality but now offers something more akin to an experience just below the top.

In our single-threated testing, the Cortex-A53 cores came in significantly below those of the higher-end Snapdragon 810, but cumulatively all eight cores work to keep things moving quickly. Better yet, these cores consume much less power than a combination of A57 and A53; battery life on the Idol 3 was consistently better than average.

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The 13MP rear camera sensor is the same Sony IMX214 as found in the Nexus 6 (which is nearly identical to the IMX135 found in the 2014 Moto X), which, paired with a sharp F2.0 lens, takes good but not great photos in most conditions. I took a number of photos with the device and found colours to be excellent, though the F2.0 lens is clearly not of the same quality as those found in more expensive handsets; barrel distortion and moiré were abundant, and the same conditions produced darker photos than other devices with similarly-advertised optics.

The phone’s front-facing stereo speakers are also much better than any $250 device has proven in the past. They’re not just loud, but full and relatively free of sibilance. They don’t quite hit the peaks of HTC’s superlative BoomSound speakers, but they’re better than the down-facing speaker of the Galaxy S6, if that gives you some perspective.

That’s largely the theme here: the device hits all the right spots, but doesn’t do anything exceptionally. It just adds to the small but growing canon of relatively high quality, moderately priced Android devices entering the market.

And yet there is something extraordinary, and not to be taken for granted, about what this phone offers. AOT has traditionally embedded Android with Huawei levels of garish skinning but the company has clearly seen the light, exposing the natural beauty of Android 5.0.1. Indeed, like knocking down aging drywall to discover a stunning mosaic of exposed brick beneath, OEMs like Alcatel OneTouch are realizing they can make great Android phones without changing too much of Google’s magic.

There is one interesting software quirk that’s worth talking about, though: the phone is completely symmetrical, with microphones and speakers space equally at the top and bottom, and AOT has adapted the software to function properly in either orientation. While the charging ports and cameras don’t relocate, obviously, the phone can be enjoyed largely unaltered in either direction.

Finally, the device, which will likely be sold unlocked in Canada beginning this summer, offers enough LTE bands to satisfy most Canadians. Support for Band 2, 4, 5, 7, 13 and 17 means that, up to 150Mbps, users will be able to reach great wireless speeds wherever they get an LTE signal.

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What Needs Work 

The occasional UI stutter is more likely due to under-optimized code than choice of chip (the much-slower Snapdragon 410 in the Moto E rarely translates into any slowness) but the Idol 3 is rife with them. An over the air update during my review period fixed a number of performance and stability issues, but minor things, like a diminished animation frame rate when tapping on a hamburger icon, mar an otherwise superlative software experience.

The only other major issue with the Idol 3 is its power button placement: for right-handed users, which will likely make up the vast majority of buyers, the top left location is just ridiculous. It’s a small thing, but worth mentioning.

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Conclusions

There aren’t many things wrong with this phone, other than the reality that Canadians will have to wait until an unspecified date later this summer to purchase one. Alcatel OneTouch says it may be offered unlocked on its ecommerce store, and at Amazon.ca, for less than $300 CAD, but we’ll have to wait a while for details.

The reason could be that in Canada, unlike in the U.S., AOT has a relationship with carriers, namely Telus and Bell. The company could be working on bringing the Idol 3 to carriers on contract, so it would need to negotiate terms before it rolls it out unlocked to everyone else.

A nice screen, decent performance, consummate battery life, unblemished software and a commendable camera make the Idol 3 Alcatel OneTouch’s best phone to date, and one of the best low-cost smartphones released this year.

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Pros

  • Excellent screen
  • Commendable battery life
  • Unblemished Android experience
  • Good camera performance
  • Excellent price
  • Good cellular performance on Canadian networks

Cons

  • Poor button placement
  • Some performance slowdowns
  • Questionable build quality
  • Mediocre call quality
  • Disappointing low-light camera performance

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